How to avoid contributing to overtourism

Kathmandu ambassadors Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and founders of adventure travel blog NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, searching for culture and adventure in off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Back in 2011, the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that 1.8 billion people would travel internationally every year. Eleven years before that deadline, that figure is already at 1.4 billion.

That is a staggering number as it sits right now, equating to approximately 1 in 5 people on the planet. While tourism has done wonders for many economies, nationally and locally, it has some negative effects on many levels, from the way towns and cities function through to the effects global travel patterns have on the climate crisis. This boom in tourism has led to what we now call ‘overtourism’.

The concept of overtourism has been a slow burner, but only recently has it become a topic of importance amongst travel advocates.

Places like Barcelona, Venice and Machu Picchu are struggling to deal with the number of tourists that pass through each year. With a current population of 636,244 people, Venice sees an estimated 20,000,000 tourists every year, with this number growing each year.

Travel and adventure are the ultimate educators, bringing cultures and countries closer together. But as travellers, it is important for us to think about how we can minimise our impact when we explore our planet.

Travel off the beaten path

The world’s most popular tourist destinations are popular for a reason. They often have remarkable sights, unique history and mesmerising landscapes that everybody wants to see. Unfortunately, these are usually the places that receive the largest impact from overtourism.

If you want to minimise your own impact, choose somewhere lesser-known to explore. Instead of going to Bali because it’s cheap and easy, consider travelling to one of the other 17,000+ islands that make up Indonesia. Not only will you help inject money straight into different communities, chances are you’ll be one of only a handful of travellers there.

Just because somewhere doesn’t have millions of visitor numbers every year, doesn’t make it any less worth visiting. If you want to go trekking in the mountains but don’t like the idea of overcrowding on the trails of Nepal, research Kyrgyzstan here and get packing!

Two travellers look at red chillis for sale in Nepal
Seek lesser known destinations to get a unique travel experience

Get out of your comfort zone and embrace local experiences

Did you know that one-third of Aussies and Kiwis actively avoid authentic local experiences when travelling overseas? This is a staggering statistic when you consider that almost half of Kiwis and a third of Aussies think of themselves as the planet’s best travellers. The Helpful or Harmful video series with Jan Fran dove deeper into this curious phenomenon via a look at Bali, Nepal and in Australia itself.  

Lots of people love the idea of travel, but don’t like to get out of their comfort zone. They’ll stay in the confines of a resort, eat food they know from back home and don’t try to learn about new cultures or experiences.

By refusing to embrace these local interactions on the road, it actually contributes to the negative effects of tourism. It essentially treats the hosts of a country as though they aren’t worthy of our time.

Be open to trying things that you can’t do back home. Visit a temple, chat with locals on public transport, sample a meal that you’ve never seen before. You’ll learn so much more about yourself if you do while opening your heart and mind at the same time.

Visit during the off-season

If you do desperately want to see the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, then a great way to avoid contributing to overtourism is to travel during the off-season (or to get up really early!). This is a great travel hack that experienced travellers swear by, for a multitude of positive reasons.

Not only will there be fewer crowds to deal with, but prices for accommodation and tours are often cheaper. The weather might be more temperamental, but you’ll be able to see the sights without any other people.

Be mindful of your environmental impact

Some destinations are on the brink of irreversible damage or of being closed down for tourists due to the severe environmental impact occurring from high visitor numbers.

Machu Picchu is a classic example of this. The historical Incan sight is quite literally sinking because of how many people are walking through it.

The Venice government is now looking to ban cruise ships from the historical centre, due to how bad they are for the environment and how much damage the ensuing mass tourism is causing to the city.

Social media is also causing a negative impact, with certain locations in Iceland now banning tourists who flock there to imitate famous Instagram photos they’ve seen.

Many places just don’t have the infrastructure to deal with excess waste and pollution that comes from millions of people a year visiting. If you’re going to travel, make sure you do everything you can to minimise your environmental footprint. Say no to single-use plastics, walk or take public transport instead of taxis, and stay in eco-friendly accommodation. Most of all, skip the crowds and head out to offbeat destinations.

A man and a woman look out from a Nepalese cafe balcony
Be mindful of where your tourists dollars go

Shop, eat and stay local

One of the ways you can be a responsible traveller is being conscious of where your money goes when you spend it on a holiday.

Large international chains do employ locals (often for minimum wage), but all too often the profits are sent out of the country.

When you’re booking your accommodation, try to find locally-owned hotels, hostels and guesthouses to stay in. For places to eat, skip the fast-food diners you can find back home and find the small restaurants to buy your next meal. When it comes to souvenirs head to the markets and spend your money with a local vendor.

Supporting small businesses when you travel will help curb the effects of overtourism by not allowing monopolies to thrive and take over popular destinations.

Travel slow

Slowing down your travels has a whole range of benefits. The first is that you really get the chance to experience each destination, as you aren’t leaving as soon as you’ve ticked off the main sights. Second, it works out to be cheaper, because you’re minimising your transport costs.

Travelling slowly also helps to cut down on overtourism. That’s because even if you’re in a very popular tourist destination, having more time often means you’ll start to explore places a little deeper, away from the main attractions.

With extra days up your sleeve, you’re more likely to go visit that historic village that is just outside of town, step into a gallery you happen to stumble across down a quiet alley or seek out smaller restaurants instead of only the ones in the guidebooks.

Give yourself more time in each place, and you’ll start to find the hidden gems other tourists don’t find out about.

Did you know that Bali is at risk of running out of drinkable water by 2020 due to unsustainable tourism? Check out the Helpful of Harmful page and download the report to find out about overtourism’s impact and how to travel with a light foot.